In this guide, we will discuss the rules and laws of the European Union (EU) when it comes to your rights as a passenger when your flight is delayed – and what kind of compensation you are entitled to in this situation.
EU passenger rights regulation
As we already outlined in a bit more detail in the first chapter of this guide on denied boarding rights and compensation, passenger rights in the EU are enshrined in a regulation officially known as (EC) No 261/2004 of the European Parliament and of the Council. We will abbreviate the regulation simply as EC/261 from here onward.
In the above link you can find the full text of the regulation, which is available in every single language of each EU member state. As the text of the regulation is fairly long and can be quite lawyerish in its use of language, we will break it down for you in easy-to-understand bits.
What is actually covered by EC/261?
Although the EC/261 law also regulates the rights of a train, ferry and bus passenger – we will look solely at flights here. Basically, EC/261 covers your rights in four possible situations:
1) You are denied boarding, for example when the flight is overbooked and some passengers need to be offloaded.
2) Your flight is delayed.
3) Your flight is cancelled altogether.
4) You are downgraded to a lower travel class than stated on your booking.
In this guide, we take a look at the second situation. What are your rights when your flight is delayed?
Needless to say, you are only covered if you have a fully confirmed reservation for your flight, which means that you need to have an e-ticket (or old-fashioned paper ticket) issued.
It does not matter whether you have paid for your ticket with cash or frequent flyer miles – both are fully covered by EC/261. Note however that passengers travelling free of charge or at a special reduced fare not publicly available are not covered by EC/261.
To which flights and airlines does EC/261 apply?
Your flight is covered by the EC/261 regulation if it meets at least one of the following two requirements:
1) Your flight is departing from an airport inside the European Union, Iceland, Norway or Switzerland.
2) Your flight is arriving at an airport in the EU, Iceland, Norway or Switzerland and is operated by an airline from one of these countries.
The fact that Iceland, Norway and Switzerland are included is because these countries are part of the European Economic Area (EEA) and had to introduce the same regulation, in case you wondered.
Let’s take a look at a few practical examples to see when your flight is covered by EC/261, and when not.
– A Ryanair flight from Brussels to Madrid is fully covered by EC/261 as it is fully within the EU and operated by an EU airline as Ryanair is based in Ireland.
– A Norwegian flight from New York to Oslo is covered by EC/261 as it arrives at an airport in the European Economic Area (EEA) and is operated by an EEA airline.
– A flight of United Airlines from New York to Oslo would on the other hand not be covered by EC/261 as it is operated by a non-EU airline. On the other hand, flying United from Oslo to New York would have been covered by EC/261 as it would depart from an EU/EEA airport.
What about flights on European airlines outside of the EU/EEA?
There are a number of interesting routes operated by European airlines which fall completely outside of EU/EEA countries.
Swiss for example operates an interesting Zurich-Dubai-Muscat route, and it allows you to book a ticket to fly just on the Dubai to Muscat portion. Similarly, KLM operates an Amsterdam-Singapore-Bali flight.
These flights – known as ‘fifth freedom flights’ in the airline industry – are not covered by EC/261 as they fall completely outside of the EU/EEA. This means that as a passenger you would be protected if you fly on KLM from Amsterdam to Singapore or Bali. If you however only book a KLM ticket from Singapore to Bali, you are not covered by the regulation.
Duty of care and compensation
According to EC/261, passengers have the right to compensation and duty of care if their flight is delayed by a minimum amount of time.
The moment when the duty of care and compensation provisions are triggered is dependent on the distance of your route and on the exact length of the delay measured from the scheduled time of departure.
There are three categories of flights as specified by EC/261. These are:
a) Short haul: Flights of 1,500 kilometres or less.
b) Medium haul (mid-haul): Flights within the European Economic Area of more than 1,500 kilometres and all other flights between 1,500 and 3,500 kilometres.
c) Long haul: All other flights not falling under (a) and (b).
The distances are calculated as the crow flies, i.e. the most direct path between two points. You can use tools such as the calculator on Travelmath to check the distance between your starting point and destination.
Duty of care
In case of delays (no matter the cause!) the airline has a duty of care to its passengers. Duty of care provisions are triggered when the delay is at least two hours for short-haul flights, three hours for mid-haul flights and four hours for long-haul flights.
What does duty of care involve?
According to EC/261, duty of care consists out of:
1) Meals & drinks. An airline should offer the delayed passenger something to eat and drink “in reasonable proportion to the waiting time”. This means that while a voucher for a snack and a drink might be sufficient for a short-haul flight which is delayed by two hours, a voucher for a full meal can be expected when the flight is delayed by five hours.
2) Communications. A passenger has the right to make two phone calls, telex or fax messages, or be given access to the internet to send two emails. Most airlines will hand out a telephone card or WiFi voucher if asked about this.
3) Accommodation. If the delay is so long that a flight has been moved to the following day, a passenger has the right to a hotel and to transport from the airport to it, and back again to the airport before the flight.
Note that these duty of care provisions exist irrespective of the reason for the delay. Whether it is an airplane malfunction or a sudden storm disrupting traffic – airlines always have the duty of care.
Good airlines which respect passenger rights will automatically inform their passengers about all of this and make sure that arrangements are in place. They will pro-actively hand out drink bottles/snacks, give vouchers which can be used at any airport cafe or restaurant, and will arrange a hotel for you if the delay is so long that it is pushed back to the next day.
That said, there are some airlines which are noteworthy for trying to escape their obligations in an attempt to save money. It can also happen that at an outstation the airline you fly with simply does not have any employees on the ground to hand out vouchers or to assist with hotel bookings (although many airlines can and will assist you over the phone/internet with this).
In such cases, you can make arrangements yourself, keep the receipt, and later file a claim with the airline asking for reimbursement of the costs.
Duty of care provisions are always based on what is considered to be “reasonable”. If you short-haul flight is only delayed for two-and-a-half hours, a snack and a drink might be considered as more “reasonable” than buying a slap-up meal for yourself.
A 25 EUR lunch with a drink will probably not cause any problem if you ask the airline to reimburse this. However, remember that EC/261 is not a carte blanche to splurge – a 150 EUR lunch bill including a good bottle of red will not be deemed as “reasonable” by the airline. A request to reimburse this will most likely be denied.
Who arranges the hotel?
The same counts for overnight accommodation in case this is needed. An airline is most likely to book a hotel for you in case your flight is delayed to the next day. They have advance deals with major hotel chains in place for such circumstances and are accustomed when it comes to arranging such bookings.
Always check first with the airline if they can arrange this for you before you make your own provisions!
It can however be a possibility when the airline is not in a position to assist you with booking the hotel or that they flat-out deny that you have the right to one. In this case, you can book a hotel yourself, but you should again take the “reasonable” bit into account.
That doesn’t mean you should stay in a dirty, poorly rated 25 EUR/night motel. It is perfectly reasonable to book a 4* hotel, even if it might cost 150 EUR per night. However, opting for a full suite when standard rooms are available, or splurging on a 600 EUR five-star hotel when decent 4* options are available might not be considered as “reasonable”.
Note that EC/261 only regulates the provision that as a passenger you have the right to a hotel in some circumstances. It does not specify whether this should be a cheap Travelodge or ibis hotel, or a luxury Sofitel or Hyatt. If an airline arranges the hotel for you – they can basically decide unilaterally which hotel this will be.
Generally speaking, most full-service airlines will always take the passenger type into account when arranging a hotel. Those flying in first or business class, as well as those holding the highest status in an airline’s frequent flyer programme will most often be booked in better hotels than economy passengers.
If you are unhappy with the arrangements made you can of course always book something yourself. Do however note that the airline will have zero obligations to reimburse this for you if what they offered was not good enough for you.
If you do need to make arrangements yourself as the airline is unable or unwilling to do so, do take the costs into account if you are hoping for the airline to reimburse it. Legacy airlines are less likely to make a problem out of a 250 EUR/night hotel reimbursement if the passenger flew in business class or is a valued frequent flyer. Needless to say, low-cost airlines might make a problem when faced with a request to reimburse a 250 EUR/night hotel and might decline it on the grounds that it was not “reasonable”!
Definitely take common sense and the airline you fly with into account.
Exception to the duty of care principle
There is a notable exception in which case duty of care does not apply. If the delayed flight is one departing from your home airport, you might not be eligible for a free hotel in case the flight is postponed to the next day. The airline may assume that you can easily travel back to your house to sleep in the comfort of your own bed.
If that is the case, you could probably still claim a meal voucher (or reimbursement of meal costs) if having to wait for a long time at the airport for flight information. You might also be able to get the costs reimbursed for transport to return home to sleep and get back again to the airport the next day to catch your delayed flight.
Reasonable is again the keyword here. If you live in Athens, the airline will assume you can easily travel back home by car or public transport from the airport (the airline will have your home address on record, after all, as most of the times you have to give this information during the booking process).
If however you are living a five-hour drive away in the Peloponnese, it is not exactly reasonable to drive home and get back again to Athens Airport the following day. In this case you should definitely claim a hotel (in case it is not already proactively provided).
Now on to the more interesting part: compensation! EC/261 provides that in some cases, you are eligible for compensation if your flight is delayed. What matter is again the length of your flight and the exact delay, which should be at least three hours.
The delay is calculated by comparing your original scheduled arrival time with your actual arrival time at your destination airport. The delay upon departure is completely irrelevant – it is arrival times which count! Use websites like Flightradar24 or Flightaware to check official arrival times and do not rely on your own watch.
Calculating your compensation
As we already wrote before, there are three categories of flights specified by EC/261. We will list the categories again below, this time with the amount of compensation added.
a) Short haul: Flights of 1,500 kilometres or less. Compensation: 250 EUR.
b) Medium haul (mid-haul): Flights within the European Economic Area of more than 1,500 kilometres and all other flights between 1,500 and 3,500 kilometres. Compensation: 400 EUR.
c) Long haul: All other flights not falling under (a) and (b). Compensation: 600 EUR.
The distances are calculated as the crow flies, i.e. the most direct path between two points. You can use tools such as the calculator on Travelmath to check the distance between your starting point and destination.
You are on a flight from Madrid to Rome, which is set to arrive at 4pm. Your flight has a delay of three-and-a-half hours upon departure, but you make up some time in the air and end up arriving in Rome at 6.55pm. As the delay is 2 hours, 55 minutes – you don’t have the right to compensation.
A flight from Lisbon to Istanbul is scheduled to arrive at 3pm. You arrive instead at 9pm. A six-hour delay is well over the minimum three-hour delay required. Lisbon to Istanbul is 2,016 miles – which means that you will receive 400 EUR.
In case of a long delay of your flight, it may happen that an airline proactively rebooks you on another flight to your destination. If your new flight:
a) Arrives no later than two hours after your original scheduled arrival time (in the category of flights of 1,500 kilometres or less); or
b) Arrives no later than three hours in case of flights within the European Economic Area of more than 1,500 kilometres and all other flights between 1,500 and 3,500 kilometres; or
c) Arrives no later than four hours for all other flights not falling under (a) and (b).
Then the airline can reduce the aforementioned compensation by 50 percent.
Your have a flight from Stockholm (scheduled departure time 11am) to Vienna (scheduled arrival time 1pm). However, it is delayed by five hours. Fortunately, the airline rebooks you on another flight. You arrive in Vienna at 2.30pm.
As the flight Stockholm-Vienna is 773 miles, it falls under category a). As you arrive within the two-hour margin after your original scheduled arrival time, the airline can reduce the normal compensation of 250 EUR by 50 percent, meaning that you will only receive 125 EUR.
If your rebooked flight would have theoretically arrived later than 3pm, the airline would still need to pay the full amount of 250 EUR. The same would count for a passenger who is not rebooked and still takes the original flight, arriving five hours later at 6pm.
It can happen that the airline might pro-actively offer you another form of compensation. Some airlines might for example notify passengers that they can receive a travel voucher worth a certain amount of money in case of a delay.
Before accepting this, first check the conditions whether or not such a voucher might free the airline of their obligation to pay EC/261 compensation. Many airlines prefer to hand out a 250 EUR travel credit on a future flight than 250 EUR cash – as the first option works out significantly better for their own wallet.
You have the freedom to decide yourself whether you accept such an offer or not. In case of 250 EUR cash vs. a 250 EUR travel credit, I would personally always opt for cash as it is much more flexible. That said, an airline can easily give you a much higher amount in travel credit (let’s say 400 EUR) – which might be more attractive than cash for some passengers.
If this sounds more attractive to you than cash, check the full terms and conditions when and how you can use the travel credit. It is very common for such travel vouchers to have certain limitations. For example, an airline can have the condition that the voucher must be used to book a new ticket within the next 9 months.
That said, if you are flexible and think you will be able to use such a travel credit to your advantage, such airline offers can be extremely worthwhile as you may be able to score something of a higher value than your initial compensation according to EC/261.
Accepting a travel voucher instead of compensation does not free the airline of its duty of care obligations.
Unlike duty of care, where the reason for the delay plays no role as you are always entitled to it in case the delay is long enough, it is highly important when it comes to compensation.
There are a number of reasons for a delay which free the airline from any obligation to pay compensation to its passengers. Basically, if the delay is the airline’s fault it is liable under EC/261. If extraordinary circumstances are to blame, the airline is off the hook.
Examples of extraordinary circumstances
When it comes to extraordinary circumstances, you have to think about situations which the airline has no control over. These are the most common extraordinary circumstances:
– Sudden adverse weather conditions (for example a storm)
– Security risks (bomb threats, terror scares)
– Political instability (longer flight path to avoid passage over unsafe airspace)
– Sudden diversion for medical or safety reasons
In all of these cases, you will not get any EC/261 compensation, although remember that duty of care provisions might still count depending on the exact delay.
There are a number of other potential reasons behind a delay which may or may not constitute extraordinary circumstances. We will list the most common ones below and go shortly through them.
If a flight is delayed by a strike, it depends on who is actually putting down its work whether or not it constitutes extraordinary circumstances.
If it’s air traffic control or airport staff on strike (ground handling, baggage control, security staff, police manning passport control booths) then the airline is off the hook and does not need to pay EC/261 delay compensation. All these functions are vital to flight operations and beyond an airline’s control.
However, if the airline’s own personnel is going on strike resulting in cancelled or delayed flights – this is considered to be within the full control of the airline as management could have prevented it.
Principally, ‘ordinary’ technical issues are certainly not part of extraordinary circumstances. For example, if a faulty part needs to be replaced on your plane after an aircraft inspection by the crew and you end up arriving over three hours late at your destination, the airline does need to pay EC/261 compensation.
The same counts when the aircraft originally planned to operate your flight has gone tech (requires maintenance) and you are put on a replacement aircraft which might take a long while for the airline to find. In this case the airline is also fully liable.
However, technical problems due to sabotage or terrorism are definitely extraordinary circumstances. If an airline manufacturer (or aviation authorities) suddenly issues a request or order to ground all planes of a certain type for an urgent review after a hidden defect is discovered, this would also count as extraordinary circumstances. A bird strike is also an extraordinary circumstance.
In practice, therefore, most mechanical problems are unlikely to constitute extraordinary circumstances and in most cases would be fully covered by EC/261.
If we for example take the issue of the Boeing 737 Max groundings, the moment when aviation authorities ordered airlines around the world to ground the planes when major design flaws were discovered after the two crashes of Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 clearly constitutes extraordinary circumstances.
Needless to say, this caused some problems for a lot of airlines who are dependent on the 737 Max to operate some of its flights. There have been airlines which blamed the 737 Max groundings for delays and cancellations as they did not have enough planes to operate all their flights.
That clearly is not a technical problem (as the groundings were announced months earlier) but an operational issue of the airline being unable to operate all its flights according to schedule. This means that you have the full right to EC/261 compensation in such a case.
Other operational problems
There are a whole lot more of potential reasons for a delay which airlines are reluctant to admit are actually operational reasons fully in their control.
A flight delay because the airline needs to find a last-minute replacement for a sick flight attendant? Operational problem and eligible for EC/261 compensation.
A delay because the pilots have maxed out on their flying hours and must first legally rest a number of hours as required by law before they can operate another flight? Operation problems and eligible for EC/261 compensation.
Airlines use complicated schedules to operate their flights. A plane might for example be scheduled to first fly Amsterdam-Athens-Amsterdam in the morning, followed by Amsterdam – Lisbon – Amsterdam in the afternoon.
Let’s say for example that due to heavy fog in the early morning, the Amsterdam to Athens flight is significantly delayed by four hours. Weather conditions are seen as extraordinary circumstances so passengers on the Amsterdam to Athens flight (and even the Athens-Amsterdam return) can forget about any EC/261 compensation.
If also the Amsterdam-Lisbon flight is delayed by four hours due to the plane arriving late from Athens, this is known as a knock-on effect in the airline industry. A secondary, indirect, or cumulative effect not related to the original problem.
Passengers on the Amsterdam-Lisbon flight would be fully eligible for EC/261 compensation. There are airlines who try to shrug their responsibility by saying this flight was “delayed due to adverse weather”. However, the adverse weather did only apply to the first Amsterdam-Athens-Amsterdam flight.
What we have here are classic operational problems – the airline could for example have used a spare plane and crew to operate the Amsterdam-Lisbon flight. According to recent European court decisions, such knock-on effects do not constitute extraordinary circumstances.
It is always a good idea to gather as much information as you can about your delay. This is especially so when you are flying with an airline notorious for dodging its EC/261 obligations, as in such cases you will need to be pro-active and not wait for the airline to offer duty of care or compensation.
If your flight is delayed, check not only what airport monitors say, but inquire with the gate agents as well. They could be as clueless as you about a delay, but sometimes they have more information, predictions, or know the exact cause of the delay.
For example, if you are set to fly on Air France from Istanbul to Paris, you can track the incoming aircraft flying Paris to Istanbul on theses websites. If your flight has a delay posted of only 30 minutes on the airport monitors, but you see that the aircraft has only just left Paris – you know that you are likely in for a much longer delay!
Note that this does only work at outstations as there is no real way of telling which plane is operating your flight when departing from a hub where the airline has many more planes available.
Checking weather forecasts
In the same way it is good to check weather conditions, both at your own departure airport and at the destination airport. This is not only a good idea to get a prediction of possible delays, but also to check whether an airline quoting weather-related “extraordinary circumstances” for a delay indeed holds up.
If you are again set to fly Istanbul to Paris, but the airline communicates that this will be delayed by three hours due to bad weather in Paris which caused the Paris-Istanbul flight to be delayed – you can easily verify if this is true. If this is indeed the case, your Istanbul flight should not be the only one delayed as you would suspect that all airport operations should be affected.
If only your plane is delayed even though the airline blames it on “bad weather” there might be something fishy going on.
That said, there can be legit cases why your aircraft has a delay while other airlines managed to operate their flights on time. Small turboprop planes for example will be grounded much earlier than large jet planes when there are high winds or a storm as these are not the most suitable to operate in such circumstances. In that case, it might be logical that your flight on a small Dash-8 turboprop has a delay while a large Airbus A330 might still be flying.
As you can see, the world of delays and EC/261 compensation is a very nuanced on – there are not always black-and-white situations and answers.
So far we have only looked at simple one-way flights when it comes to the EC/261 regulation. However, a great amount of passengers are actually travelling on connecting flights. For example, you might be booked on a ticket Venice-Paris-Copenhagen, all on Air France. Your scheduled arrival time in Copenhagen is 4pm.
In this case, what matters is the arrival time at your final destination (Copenhagen) – and not your flight to Paris.
Let’s assume your Venice to Paris flight is delayed by two hours due to a mechanical issue. You miss your connecting flight to Copenhagen, and are rebooked on a later flight to the Danish capital. If you arrive at 7.30pm – it will be a more than 3-hour delay and you are eligible for EC/261 compensation. The fact that your Venice-Paris flight was only delayed by two hours is irrelevant.
Let’s now assume that your flight from Venice to Paris is delayed by four hours due to a mechanical problem. You however still make your originally planned connecting flight to Copenhagen and arrive on time. In this case, you are not eligible for compensation under EC/261, although you are entitled to duty of care – i.e. a meal voucher – in Venice.
Remember that your layover in Paris to change planes is completely irrelevant to EC/261 compensation as the ticket you bought is actually a contract between you and the airline to fly you from Venice to Copenhagen. Even if you may have planned a long layover as you planned to quickly hop into Paris for a few hours this is irrelevant when it comes to EC/261.
It might only be different if you manually booked a stopover in Paris (and thus not a connection at the airport) as part of a multi-destination itinerary (for example flying Venice to Paris on Monday, Paris to Copenhagen on Tuesday) as in that case Paris is your first destination.
Abandoning your journey and asking a refund
In certain cases it is possible to ask the airline for a full refund of your ticket in case of a delay. Two conditions must however be met first.
– The delay must be over five hours in length
– The purpose of your journey is meaningless because of the delay
Needless to say, asking for a refund will result in your ticket being made void, you will no longer have the right to use the ticket and to get on the flight. A refund should be paid back in full within seven days.
You will however still be eligible for EC/261 compensation if normal delay requirements which we outlined above are met (and remember that these are triggered if the delay is at least three hours – the five hour requirement only counts for the possibility to ask a refund).
Purpose of journey
The airline can legally ask you for evidence why your trip has suddenly become meaningless. For example, missing an important business meeting because of a delay which would make the entire journey meaningless is definitely a valid reason and airlines would accept this.
However, saying that your week-long holiday is pointless because of a five hour delay will not get you far with the airline.
It can happen that your delay only happens at a halfway point during your trip. If for example you booked an Air France ticket Turin-Paris-London, you might arrive in Paris on time, but find out there that your flight to London is delayed by five hours.
In this case, you do have the right to ask for the reimbursement and to be brought back to your point of departure (Turin) at the earliest opportunity if your original travel plan is no longer relevant due to the denial of boarding.
Never forget that you should have a good quality travel insurance when taking a flight. Incurred costs which might not be covered by the airline under the provisions of EC/261 may be fully covered by your travel insurance.
Do also note that EC/261 does only apply to denied boarding, delays, cancellations and downgrade of travel class. Damaged or missing baggage is for example covered by the regulations of the Montreal Convention. Air disasters and personal injury are covered by the Warsaw Convention.
Battling the airline
Some airlines might be very forthcoming when it comes to their obligations under EU/261, some might be willing but are unable to be of much help due to logistical issues if you are stranded at a faraway airport, while others flat out deny their obligations and try to do everything not having to pay.
Be sure to prepare for any eventualities and to know what your rights are as an airline passenger. Unfortunately there are airlines which will do everything to get out of their EC/261 obligations, which could result in a prolonged fight to claim your compensation and reimbursement of food and hotel costs under the duty of care provision.
In our fifth guide (see link below) we will explain what you should do in such situations.
This guide is the second of five guides in our series on EC/261 airline compensation and passenger rights.
1. Guide: EU Rights and Compensation When Denied Boarding
2. Guide: How to Get EU Compensation When Your Flight Is Delayed (current chapter)
3. Guide: EU Rights and Compensation When Flight Is Cancelled – coming soon
4. Guide: EU Compensation When You Are Downgraded – coming soon
5. DIY Guide How To Get Airline Compensation Without Involving a Claim Bureau – coming soon